To understand our family is to know about the warehouse. Magic things happened there. Our fortunes fluctuated. We ran a small international company by each of us occupying every single role, from managing director to warehouse staff to janitor. We gave it everything we had. Each of us. And so our family survived.
On Sundays, we were a gang. My father, mother, two kakas and kaki, and a stack of theplas wrapped in tin foil. The radio was tuned to Sunrise. Junaid’s dad voiced the occasional advert. We mocked his Rothmans-deep voice. In Summer, we listened to test cricket, loudly if India was playing. Dad and the kaka drank lukewarm tins of Fosters and occasionally bellowed ‘ahl-roight bra-thaaaa’ to each other, and kaki and my mum took over the office at the back, licking their glitter-peppered fingertips and counting reams and reams of tissue paper into individual packs of three sheets.
We were the only ones on the industrial estate.
I heard and spoke Gujarati all day. We dipped thepla in a carrot and chilli seed pickle and ate them rolled up. Mum and I shared two or three cans of Diet Coke. Kaki banged the desk every time she made a mistake. She was, mum had once remarked, a typical Bombay-ite. Everything was fast and loud and dramatic and full of heart.
I helped to pack orders, count out reams of paper, pack them, tick them off on the order sheet, gee up my uncles with tales of my school and generally feel like an adult. I did this willingly at first. I understood my burden. I was the one out of dad and kaka’s kids who got to go to private school. I was the eldest. It was important to them all that I went. My parents didn’t come to the UK to assimilate. They came here to make money. But they understood that in order to make more money, you might have to assimilate. It was with this in mind that they focussed on my education, sending me to a private school, because private schools churned out future leaders, future business tycoons, and future lawyers. They afforded opportunity. Most importantly, my dad thought, they looped you into the old boy’s network he knew existed. By going to private school, I would be making connections that could pay off in my adult life. The irony was that all this opportunity private school afforded me, it turned me towards the arts.
By the time my sister was ready for school, by the time my cousins were ready for school, the business was floundering and so they all went to comprehensives. Meanwhile, I was left to excel at private school. Except, I was failing in maths and science, the subjects that meant everything to my dad and his brother, and the pressure of doing badly made me hide as much as I could, because I didn’t want a lecture from my mum about what a waste of money I was, how we were all struggling, as a family, to give me the best education so I could be the saviour of the family. This is the thing about immigrants and private school. Whatever our class or background, we’re so assimilated into the British institutional way of life, that a private school feels like the top of the food chain. It becomes important that everything is sacrificed so we can go, and have the opportunities we’re told aren’t for us. There was a particular time, in my year, when suddenly a significant portion of the intake was Gujarati kids in North West London, and suddenly the school was deemed to be going downhill, because we were here, decolonising by taking over, thus ruining the school’s potential to be able to sell you by virtue of its name alone.
But we’re here to talk about the warehouse.
The warehouse was filled with boxes. There was no adherence to any health and safety. The fire exit was blocked by a stack of flattened boxes we kept in case we ever needed them. Piles of boxes ran up high, nearly touching the ceiling. Boxes spilled into the office till they became a permanent fixture and dad and kaka stopped taking meetings on site, because the office ended up being more storage space.
When dad had walked mum, my sister and me around the space just before we moved in, he was incredibly proud of the suite of three offices. The plan was for him to sit in the back, the executive corner office, he called it. There was a desk and a phone and a glass display case where he could show off his business accolades. There was a small round table with four chairs around it for meetings. Now the executive corner office was where we ate lunch and mum and kaki counted and folded sheets of paper.
We had taken on a new contract that involved presenting the paper to shops in their own point of sale branding. It meant hours and hours and counting off three individual sheets of paper and using tools made from old cardboard packing boxes, folding the sheets until they fit in small see-through bags, before stapling on the header advertising the shop, price and what exactly the paper was. Mum and kaki sat in that small office, surrounded by boxes, inhaling glitter by the fistful, counting off sheets and gossiping about family members, while dad, relegated to the middle office, which was supposed to be where all the operations were managed, sat on the archaic computer, printing off remittance advice, invoices and payment reminders.
The kakas and I were be in the main warehouse, listening to Sunrise Radio (number one-rise radio, it’s Sunrise Radio), all dressed in hoodies or fleeces, packing boxes, joking with each other, teasing each other mercilessly. They drank beer, I drank mum’s diet Coke. We made fun of each other’s appearance, the way we sang certain Hindi words. We told bad jokes. Made fun of each other’s bad jokes.
I stole moments to myself in amidst all the chaos. When the kakas would retire to the offices to help out, or to drive boxes around various homeworkers to carry on the assembly line when we had big orders, the warehouse was mine.
While I packed orders, I entered my own make-believe world. I stood at the front, near the shutters. The warehouse wasn’t big but it was chaotically packed, which afforded me pockets of invisibility. I stood with the broom handle, pretending to be Michael Jackson and singing. Or Prabhu Deva, apparently a teacher of Jackson, as he pulsated and jerked his body around impossibly to ‘urvashi, urvashi, take it easy policy’.
I was in a detective show, every now and then. I was deep undercover, working as a warehouse worker in a family business. The family was using gift-wrapping paper to smuggle drugs around the country. I was investigating but I was in too deep because I’d made friends with the family and realised that while they were engaged in severely criminal activities, actually they had hearts of gold, and were just trying to make ends meet. They were just middle men and it was the top boss blackmailing them into moving his products I had to investigate. But in order to protect this family that took me in as its own, I kept my identity a secret. I kept a secret radio on the mezzanine floor of the warehouse, stashed amongst the boxes of dead stock. When I was alone in the warehouse, I’d imagine the sensors were on, meaning, I couldn’t touch the ground, and I had to get from the front, near the shutters, to the stairs up to the mezzanine to radio the sarge without alerting anyone to my presence. This meant jumping from palette to palette, using stacks of boxes to balance on, creeping, clutching on to high shelves as I shimmied along the bottom one, and at the last jump, hanging on to the metal joist holding up the makeshift mezzanine floor and having it support my weight for a vital few seconds as I swung safely on to the stairs. I don’t know why the stairs didn’t have sensors like the rest of the place, but that didn’t matter. It was a repeated scene, I made this move again and again and again, every Saturday, every Sunday, for years and years.
The warehouse was magic like that.
It meant everything to our families.
My uncle bought the Daily Star and the Daily Mail every single day, and holed up in the toilet for hours at a time, reading both, getting his daily dose of boobs and racism. I avoided the Mail but would flick through the Star as I approached my teenage years, because this was the easiest way to access pornography. He kept stacks of both papers by his desk in the front office. If I was doing my homework, which was expected of me, to split my time between my education and paying for my education, I’d sit at my uncle’s desk, my books open.
When no one was looking, I’d flick through as many Daily Stars as I could, flushing with embarrassment at the first sighting of breast, and closing the paper, getting my head in my books guiltily.
As I got older, those papers would be the battleground for endless arguments with my uncle about racism and feminism.
Soon, I’d stop coming to the warehouse altogether.
The warehouse meant everything for our family. You’d know a big important order was due to be shipped when my grandparents were brought in to help with counting sheets.
The cans of beer would then be done in secret, because my dad and his brothers were desperate for their father to think they were taking the business seriously.
Years later, when I had finished university and could see the world moving on from small companies, I begged dad and my uncle to consider a website. They traded on word of mouth and reliability alone. I told them this was the way of the old world.
‘But you can’t touch the papers,’ dad told me. ‘You have to touch the papers.’
‘My contacts all love me,’ my uncle told me from behind a Daily Mail. The headline screamed at immigrants. I couldn’t get past the incongruousness of the moment.
I speculated that maybe having our surname in the name of the company put people off. Maybe having an ethnic name was a problem.
My uncle put his paper down, riled.
‘That is our name, beta,’ he told me. ‘It was our name before the company, and it will be our name after the company. The name is like a quality stamp.’
Years later, I regret the interaction. And what I was suggesting they do, pander to white fears about immigrants. My dad and uncle, while they may not have been able to move with the speed business was moving, they kept their integrity. Years later, and I’m staring at a quote from Uzo Aduba, an actor in Orange Is The New Black. She says, I went home and asked my mother if I could be called Zoe. I remember she was cooking, and in her Nigerian accent she said, “Why?” I said, “Nobody can pronounce it.” Without missing a beat, she said, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.
I don’t know the point at which I stopped going to the warehouse unless I was asked by dad. Mum asked all the time, but if dad had to ask, you know it meant they needed help. Otherwise I was free to be at home by myself, on the proviso that I was studying hard, and looking after my sister and cousins.
We mostly fought for supremacy of the remote control. The one thing we could settle on was re-watching episodes of The New Adventures Of Superman and Friends, both we’d recorded in the preceding 48 hours, and watched when they were broadcast.
My sister’s TV sessions meant cartoons and mine meant films. We’d sit in on each other’s sessions and that’s when the study books would come out. We’d keep them open in front of us, our eyes glued to the screen, hoping to learn by osmosis.
The warehouse carried on, season by season, without us. Mum and dad went every day, even when mum had work, she’d start and end her days there. Dad dropped me at school at 7.45am and was at the warehouse till 7pm every weekday, and Saturday and Sunday, they took it easier, 10-6.
Each time I went back to the warehouse, I could see it decaying around me and I could see my parents disappointment in what they thought was my squandering of my schooling.
The school gave me the opportunity my parents were so desperate for our entire family to have, and with opportunity and access, I chose the opposite of what they wanted.
With the semblance of every opportunity laid out before, I knew I wanted to be a writer. Mostly, because I wanted to write Star Wars tie-in novels. When I told my mum and dad that this was my dream, not business like they sorely hoped, desperate for me to wrestle the company from my dad’s tired shoulders, not law, like they sorely hoped would be the compromise I would arrive at when they realised I was terrible at maths and strategy, but good at languages and arguing, they sat me down and gave me the well-worn immigrant speech.
‘You want to go into a competitive industry like writing, you have to realise that it is run by mediocre white men,’ dad told me. ‘You have to work twice as hard as the mediocre white man, write twice as good to even get half the opportunities they do.’
‘Surely it’s the same in business.’
‘That is why we work three times as hard,’ he told me, sipping on a whisky and soda, staring at the Technics hi-fi he was so proud of as it played CD compilations of Bollywood songs we knew inside out. ‘Look at the books world. Do you see anyone who looks like us? Now look at business. Some things belong to us. Other things do not.’
Sadly, it wasn’t enough.
By the time I hit my late twenties, I had outgrown my weekly trips to the warehouse. Mum and dad had abandoned working on weekends and the business was in slow decline.
‘A small business cannot survive in this climate,’ he told me. ‘The shops, they will only deal with the big companies now,’ he insisted.
I asked again why they didn’t have a website. They needed a website.
‘It is paper,’ mum told me, echoing dad from nearly a decade ago. ‘You need to be able to feel it, look at it, touch it, see it in the flesh.’
‘Either way,’ I told them. ‘You need a website. One that can people can order through.’
Whether it was their inability to keep up with technology, or whether it was the squeezing of small businesses as high streets closed ranks and cut costs, or whether it was the damn ethnic name, they eventually, months after it was too late, folded the business.
My last trip to the warehouse was with a choke held back in my throat the entire hour I was there. The warehouse had worn my family down: my father and his need for a responsibility-free job; my mother and the glitter that had scarred her lungs irreparably; my uncle and the only job he had ever had, the company he started from the back of the lorry he bought for cheap with pocket money; the youngest brother and the lost weekends he could have spent golfing, scrapbooking, socialising, watching football; me with the guilt that I should have been a lawyer in order to pay back the sacrifice an entire family made to send me to private school (not my younger sister or cousins, there was no money left, just me, the first-born, the one with the most potential).
I walked along the slim corridors of boxes and looked around. It seemed smaller than I remembered. I picked up the broom I would disappear with behind boxes at the front of the warehouse to pretend was a mic stand and I was Michael Jackson, every urgent limp in my body taut and controlled as it shimmied and danced seamlessly.
I walked up the stairs to the mezzanine floor where I pretended to stash the radio to get in touch with my superiors and update them on the drug gang.
I ate thepla out of foil, dipping it into carrots swimming in chilli oil.
I sat at my uncle’s desk and marvelled at the decades worth of Daily Mails, Daily Stars and Daily Expresses folded up and stacked around him.
I looked up at the wall planner on his desk, pinned to the partition wall. It was from 1993.
I recognised my handwriting immediately. Out of boredom, I had written mine and my sister’s birthdays on the wall paper and drawn three Star Trek Federation insignias around the border.
We had lived here and we had done our best. Whatever we did, it was enough. My family was beaten down, and not prepared for what would come in the next few years — illness, chronic unemployment, death. But we had existed, here. And made our name.
We left the sign up on the door as we exited the warehouse for the last time. It was Sunday and there was no one else around.
We let the warehouse remain Shukla Packaging.
We needed people to know we were here.
As we drove away, I remembered, once, on a cross country run with my school, we ran along the canal. I was quite a way behind but as we passed the back of an industrial estate, I noticed an opening that led into the courtyard where dad’s warehouse was.
Smiling, I ran towards the front door, opening it and frightening my uncle, who had been asleep with his head on the desk.
‘Hi,’ I shouted, breathlessly.
Dad walked in from the warehouse into the office where I stood, muddy and panting.
‘Son,’ he told me. ‘This is a place of business.’